Writing Action: Reversals, Limited Resources, and Compounding Problems

People want to know how to write action scenes, and advice on this tends to range from “adopt a specific writing style” to “give up, people only read books for dialogue/inner monologues/flowery prose descriptions of sunny hills.” Now, no one is ever going to be satisfied with a book that’s trying to be the novelization of a hypothetical Jackie Chan film. You can’t carry a book on action-comedy with an excuse plot the way you can a movie, because not being a visual medium does have some problems.

But it’s still totally possible to write good action scenes, and the secret to that is not in how long your sentences are. It’s in reversals, limited resources, and compounding problems.

Reversals of fortune just means that whoever is currently winning starts losing. The person currently losing pulls out some special tactic, unveils a new weapon from their arsenal, receives reinforcements, whatever, and now suddenly they are winning. Then their opponent does the same thing. Constant reversals keep it up in the air who’s going to win. It’s worth noting that “winning” is relative here. A hero badly outmatched by a powerful villain might be trying to escape, in which case reversals in the hero’s favor can be about the hero creating distance and hiding rather than doing any kind of damage. You can also have reversals where the person currently losing tries something, it looks like it’s going to work, and then it doesn’t, leaving the situation back where we started. The villain unveils a new death ray, powers it up, points it at the hero, and then it blows up in their face. The reversal in the hero’s favor is just that the reversal in the villain’s favor turned out to be a dud, but it still works.

Limited resources means setting up how many resources your hero and villain have to burn through, and then using the remaining resources to track how close they are to defeat. These can be literal resources, like bullets in a gun or gas in a tank, and they can also be abstract resources, like layers of defense on a castle. You can have a battle that goes from the outer walls, to the streets of the city, and then into the keep at the center, and your audience will get that the defenders are getting closer to defeat as they run out of places to retreat to. Limited resources need to be significant enough that running out of them serves as a reversal, or better yet ends the action in favor of one or the other entirely, and they should not generally be something that you can just get more of. Although it’s possible to have a battle that bounces back and forth between the city streets and the city wall, you don’t usually want that to happen, and instead let defenses topple one by one. Measure the attacking army’s strength separately, with something like the number of active commanders. This way, attacker and defender are not swinging back and forth in a stalemate that could go on forever, but instead both are slowly depleting their resources and whoever hits zero first is the loser. You can also have both sides of a fight have separate pools of the same resource. The most straightforward one is bodily health. Unless you’re writing LitRPG, you don’t want to quantify this with literal hit points, but you can have both sides taking serious injuries that meaningfully impede their ability to fight, and your audience will get that eventually one side or another will be totally incapacitated.

Finally, compounding problems. You don’t want an action scene to revolve too heavily around a problem coming up and then immediately being solved, as this gives no time for tension to build. Instead, bring up a problem, have the protagonist(s) attempt to solve it, and while they’re trying, increase the pressure and the stakes. While one protagonist tries to hack door controls, the other has to fight off waves of bad guys, and the bad guys do things like call upon elite reinforcements, start coming up through the walls, and start putting snipers into place to shoot the hacker, with each problem compounding the last: The elites are still there when the vents pop open and start a second flank to the fight, and both of that is ongoing when a sniper starts lining up a shot. The pressure keeps rising until the door pops open and our heroes can make their escape. Instead of problems coming up and being solved one by one, creating the impression that our heroes could do this all day, compounding problems can create the impression that the next bit of straw could always be the one that breaks the camel’s back.

Guardian One: Hello World

This is something I started writing on a whim, so it feels like a pretty good thing to stick into a Sunday filler slot. I’m probably posting it to someplace like Royal Road at some point, but for now I’m holding off in case I decide to tweak details about setting or character in the future, which means there may be differences between this version and the final version. Not just line-by-line editing for clarity and pace (for example, this entire first chapter might get cut if this story makes it to a final release to Amazon, but not for Royal Road), but significant overhauls in character personality and the time and location of the setting. The year given has shifted by several decades in several directions from 2039 to 2099 since I started writing, and may continue to do so. Basic setting assumptions about the source and nature of the crime problem and the geographic location of the setting have been altered, and may be altered again.

Continue reading “Guardian One: Hello World”

Ophiuchus 2: Undercover

When you sorted the namus.gov list by date, April 24th took up eight pages. It was nearly as much as the rest of the database put together. And this was after there’d been nearly a month to sort through all the stray children found in the rubble and shepherded into refugee camps. And to identify bodies.

“Matthew Habashy?” he asked.

“Yes, who is this?” came the voice on the other end of the Tracfone. Before picking one up from Wal-Mart today, Ophiuchus hadn’t even known that cell phones came as cheap as $25.

“I’m calling about the FBSA,” Ophiuchus said.

“I think there’s been a mix-up, this isn’t my work number,” Matthew said.

“I know,” Ophiuchus said. At fbsa.gov, the only numbers listed were general contact numbers, not specific agents. At whitepages.com, you could reliably find the address and phone number of anyone over 30 years old with a name and a city of residence. Now he’d confirmed he worked for the FBSA, Ophiuchus knew he had the right Matthew Habashy.

“Who is this?” Matthew asked.

“I’m looking for missing persons abducted out of Galaxy City by the Hellions,” Ophiuchus said.

“Why didn’t you go through the FBSA?” Matthew asked.

“I’m not a hero,” Ophiuchus said.

Matthew was silent a while. “You still haven’t told me who you are.”

“My name is Ophiuchus,” he said, “and I have an interest in the people the Hellions have been abducting.”

“What kind of an interest?” Matthew asked, “are you with Arachnos?”

“No,” Ophiuchus said, “I’m working independently. I can’t give you any more details than that.”

“I don’t work with, ah, independents,” Matthew said, “you’ll have to get in touch-”

“Do you think Dana will still be there when the FBSA gets around to assigning you a super?” Ophiuchus asked.

Matthew was silent again. Finally he asked “how do you know all this?”

Facebook. “That’s not important,” Ophiuchus said, “what matters is what I don’t know. I don’t know why the Hellions are kidnapping people, and I don’t know where they’re taking them. Until I do, I can’t get any of them back. Do you want Dana back?”

“I do,” Matthew said, “what do you need from me?”

Continue reading “Ophiuchus 2: Undercover”

The Immortality Cure Is Mediocre But Also CJ Olsen Isn’t Being Showered In Success For It So Maybe He Will Actually Improve

Part 1: Sauron’s Princess Saves A Cat
Part 2: Immortal Incest Sauron
Part 3: Dinner With Sauron
Part 4: Escape From Megacity One
Part 5: I Guess We Care About Gregor Now
Part 6: Chase After Chase
Part 7: Desert Snakes
Part 8: History Lesson
Part 9: Love Letter 2: Love Harder
Part 10: Cyborg Rebel Commander
Part 11: Immortality Cured

The Immortality Cure is meant to be the first book in a trilogy of duologies, six books total, each duology taking place in a different era of the same world, with only one common character between them, a secret eternal alchemist. So, CJ Olsen really wants to be Brandon Sandersen (who, if you are not aware, supposedly has a single common character present in all of his books, who is some kind of planeswalker that goes under several different aliases).

And you should not read this planned sprawling epic, because its first book is bad and I see little reason to believe the second book will not also be bad. The book has a prefixation with its female lead’s breasts that I put a moratorium on commenting on early on because of how incessant it was, and while that prefixation waxed and waned, it never went away and several of its most egregious examples show up towards the end of the book, so it’s not a habit the book eventually grows out of, either. The main characters experience no meaningful change except the realization that they want to boink each other, which, devoid of any need to overcome character flaws in order to make that relationship work, isn’t at all compelling. There are some motions in the general direction of a character arc, like female lead Charlotte going from scared of heights at the beginning to flying an airship at the end, but despite the narrative’s insistence, Charlotte shows no sign of becoming generally more assertive and self-confident. Getting over her fear of heights isn’t symbolic of character growth, it’s substituted for character growth.

The book has some interesting ideas. Its alchemy system isn’t extremely deep, but there are some cool monsters and its one major rule is actually used in the story in a way that could have been interesting had CJ Olsen not forgotten that main villain Harthum disclosed the most important consequence of that system in his very first onpage appearance clear back in act one, thus rendering the entire investigation into alchemy moot, since our protagonist knew the critical information from the start and the rest was window dressing. Airships are fun, so it’s a shame that we leave ours behind almost as soon as the adventure begins.

But the fact that I can’t even mention the good parts without also mentioning how they don’t really get a chance to shine makes it pretty clear that this book isn’t a mixed bag. There are bits of it that could have been part of another, better book, but the book they’re in is pretty dull, and doesn’t know what to do with these interesting elements, which means they don’t get a chance to improve the narrative much at all.

The Immortal Cure: Immortality Cured

Chapter 24

Alright. Final stretch. I missed a day, but once I get out of this book I think I’ll be good.  I’ll admit that part of my problem here is that I have spent a lot of time playing a perfectly legal non-pirate MMORPG, which is making everything seem less engaging than usual, but also part of the problem is that this is not a very interesting book.

Anyway, Alister has realized he loved Charlotte, because apparently he’s real slow on the uptake with regards to his own emotions, and is trying to help her assassinate Harthum? Or is just trying to track her down so he can tell her that he’s in love with her? It’s really not clear what his actual goal is here, and this mainly just feels like the scene from a romcom where the guy tries to reach the girl and profess his love, except the stakes are so much fucking higher that it all comes across like farce. Like, dude, she’s trying to assassinate an evil overlord. How much do you love her really, that getting her to tick a box in your “do you like me?” note is more important than the fact that she is very probably about to die?

Like, look at this:

As he ran back to the airfield, Alister counted the hours on his hands. Four hours to Callan at full speed plus finding a way into the Eternal’s palace. I’m not going to make it, Alister thought and he picked up speed. A small box tucked away in his jacket pocket bumped against his leg with every stride. Inside was Alister’s mother’s necklace. I have to try, he thought to himself. I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t.

Maybe the idea here is that Alister wants to help her save the world, because it never explicitly contradicts that, but the emphasis on the love present he nearly gave her until he found her letter to Jonathon suggests that no, he just wants to propose. Can’t that wait until after the assassination attempt?

Continue reading “The Immortal Cure: Immortality Cured”

Ophiuchus 1: The Masked Man

One thing I’d considered using to fill in my Sunday slot was bits of my draft of the ongoing novel I’m working on. The problem with this is that I don’t want first draft material from the novel making it in, when it could see heavy revision or even be cut completely by the time it actually appears in the story. Plus, while first drafting, it’s important to just get to the story’s end even if some of the chapters aren’t very good, because you can clean up the bad stuff in editing just so long as you actually finish a story and reach the editing stage. Dumping bad bits of the first draft that need to be cleaned up before publication will only serve to convince people that they’ve already given the story a chance and didn’t like it when that isn’t necessarily true.

Fan fiction for MMORPGs that went offline seven years ago doesn’t have this problem. I can dump first drafts directly into the blog and if people don’t like it, that’s because they actually don’t like my fan fiction. This stuff can’t be sold, is written purely for fun, and as such receives only as-I-write editing. The only outline is that I am loosely following the plot structure of City of Heroes except and until I think of something better. If I decide to write more of these at all, I may jump multiple “issues” into the future whenever I feel like shaking up the status quo but don’t feel like explaining how we got here, and the interim issues may or may not ever get written.

I have no idea whether or not this is going to be a regular thing (I made a category for it just in case, but a lot of categories are speculative, don’t pan out, and end up with like four total posts in them). Maybe this will be my Sunday slot going forward. Maybe this will just be something I do for this specific Sunday and I figure something else out later. We’ll see. The “#1” designation is less a promise that this will be a series and more meant to invoke comic books in general. I’d have started us at, like, #7 or something, but this is too clearly an origin story.

Continue reading “Ophiuchus 1: The Masked Man”

The Immortal Cure: Cyborg Rebel Commander

Chapter 21

The party arrives at the town where they’re supposed to meet their mysterious benefactor. The whole town is staring at them, and at one point comes at them with a torches and pitchforks, before a guy in a bowler hat shows up and talks the crowd down. It’s not really clear why the crowd was so angry in the first place, but bowler hat guy takes them to see Captain Hancock, who is a cyborg working for the Rebellion, hands Alister his giant sack of money, and Alister takes it and leaves. Charlotte asks Annie to go with him in order to keep him safe.

And again I’m wondering: Is this supposed to be our act two down beat? The moment when all seems lost? That Alister and Charlotte might not get together after all? Are the Rebellion going to turn out evil and Charlotte will be forced to deal with that entirely by herself until Alister comes back for…some reason? That feels like the only way this can go.

Chapter 22

Charlotte gets all gussied up in a nice white dress and meets with Captain Hancock, who has a black dress that somehow blends well with her cyborg bits, which I find hard to believe, considering that her cyborg bits include large portions of her face. I can see a dress making a cyborg arm look regal, but I don’t see how it could do anything for your face, considering the dress presumably ends at the neck at the highest. In any case, the book takes a paragraph to clumsily pretend it’s a movie:

Charlotte took her drink and walked to the fireplace as well. The flames emphasized the contrast between Charlotte’s white dress and Hancock’s black one.

This feels less like painting an image with words and more like a camera direction from a scriptwriter who doesn’t trust the director.

Charlotte explains what she knows about her mysterious super stone:

Charlotte looked down at her feet, “My theory is that we must touch the stone to Harthum. I believe that it will unravel his immortality.”

“And why is that?” Hancock asked.

Charlotte fumbled for an explanation but in the end decided on the truth. “I do not know. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any information that explains the existence of the stone and its ability to be active outside of a designated flask.”

“But you believe that contact between the stone and Harthum,” she said his name as if it were poison, “would result in a reversal of his immortality?”

“I think that it is the most plausible outcome.”

Captain Hancock nodded and took one last drink of her wine before setting it down. She turned to Charlotte and held out her good hand. “Very well, you will hand the stone over to me. My men and I will infiltrate Callan in three days. We will attempt to destroy Harthum with this stone.”

So note that this conversation basically goes:

Charlotte: “I think touching the stone to Harthum will make him mortal.”

Hancock: “What makes you think that will work?”

Charlotte: “I dunno.”

Hancock: “Good enough for me, brb staking my life on your totally unsupported guess.”

Continue reading “The Immortal Cure: Cyborg Rebel Commander”

The Immortal Cure: Love Letter 2: Love Harder

Admin note, a few hours after it was supposed to go live, I noticed I’d put the wrong time in for the last Immortal Cure post. I tried to switch it to the right time, and instead overshot so it was six hours early. Even if it’s worked, it still would’ve posted without notifying anyone, ’cause it was backdated. Probably should’ve just let it go up six hours later than normal, it’s not like anyone’s hitting refresh on my website waiting for the hour to tick over so they can get a new post.

Chapter 19

I haven’t been so eager to see the end of a book since Dungeon Born – at least things like Succubus were spectacularly bad and not just relentlessly mediocre – but unfortunately the Immortal Cure does have an actual plot where scenes build on what came before so I can’t just compress a fifth of the story into a two-line summary and exclude nothing important. For that matter, it’s worth noting here that the Immortal Cure is often aiming in the right direction, it’s just constantly crippled by a character-driven plot driven by characters with no charm or chemistry. If the secrets of alchemy are meant to be a plot-driven big twist, then that’s also a problem, because I don’t care about that, either. Like, really, what do I care about the umpteenth Brandon Sandersen rip-off magic system? Mistborn was published in 2006, we’re reaching the stage where complaining about Sandersen knock-offs is itself becoming old hat, actual Sandersen knock-offs set sail years ago. And the setting is functional but uninspired, good enough to serve as the foundation for other elements without detracting from them but not a selling point on its own. Much like the plot, it’s somewhat formulaic but competently executed enough not to get in the way of the book’s strengths, if only the book had any strengths.

Anyway, Charlotte ruminates on how she’s in love with a pirate and also on how this is the stupidest thing to be preoccupying her thoughts while she’s preparing to murder a tyrant, something that would be compelling if love and romance had not been at the forefront of her mind almost incessantly from chapter one.

Eventually, she joins Alister and Giovanni, and they start trying to puzzle out why Geoffrey went rogue. This is the part of the narrative that tries to make Charlotte look smart by making Alister and Giovanni into dipshits.

Charlotte turned to Alister. “I have thought about this a lot. I think Geoffrey saved you because he liked you, Alister. I believe that something more powerful than his conditioning leaked through, causing him to act according to his own desires. And that desire was to protect you. It’s soul, or Ether according to Flamel’s journal, wanted to protect you despite what it had been trained to do.”

Alister nodded slowly. “I guess that makes sense. But why? Why try to protect me? It’s not like I did anything different with it.”

“I am not sure about that,” Charlotte said, looking down at her cracker. “You see, you did something no other previous master had done.”

“What’s that?”

“You gave him a name.”

The book has explicitly called this out as unusual, not just in narrative but in dialogue, so Alister should be aware that this is weird. Genius inventor that he is, he should also be smart enough to realize that the weird thing he did is the prime candidate for being responsible for the golem’s weird behavior towards him. Also, anthropomorphizing non-living creatures is plenty common. People name their cars, their computers, any machine they interact with regularly. Not most people, but enough of them that golems getting named and subsequently going rogue should be a common enough occurrence for the redcoats to know about it. Plus, if it’s literally just giving some kind of unique identification, then anyone who regularly interacts with more than one golem will at the very least number them. Naming them would be more advisable, since it’s easier to keep track of Alice, Bob, and Charlie than it is to keep track of golem one, golem two, and golem three.

Giovanni impulsively tries to smash the super stone from the ruin open, but it’s basically impervious. Charlotte still suspects that touching the stone to Harthum might kill him, although it’s still not clear why she thinks that. During this chapter, she also comes across a more reasonable, though still speculative, theory: Maybe this stone will crumble if removed from its chamber just like all the others, but it just has a really big chamber. So, maybe we Journey to the Moon this shit by firing the stone out of a giant cannon until it leaves the planet?

Continue reading “The Immortal Cure: Love Letter 2: Love Harder”

The Immortal Cure: History Lesson

Chapter 16

Everyone is safe in the ruined city where Annie the living doll resides. And also they have passed the mysterious test of character they didn’t even know they were taking.

“Thank you, Prince Alister,” Annie said, giving him a curtsy.

She giggled which, to Alister, was very creepy. He rolled his eyes, obviously not caring for his new title.

“Charlotte,” Annie said, addressing the room. “Prince Alister. Mr. Giovanni.” She looked at each of them as she spoke. “I have decided that you are people who love and care for each other.”

“Um… thank you, Annie,” Charlotte said, confused. “My father,” she continued, “told me that I was to wait for people to come who love and care for each other and me. He said that they would not be afraid or angry with me but would be nice and kind. You have all become my friends and made me oh, so happy.”

See, turns out Annie knew where her father’s secret alchemy lab was all along, she was just waiting ’till she was certain that these strangers qualified by her father’s criteria. There’s nothing wrong with the basic premise of a father entrusting his golemized daughter with the secrets of his life’s work before he expires, and setting some guidelines that 1) a child could understand and 2) will hopefully keep the lab out of the wrong hands. And generally speaking, this moment where the heroes get something they could not have gotten had they not grown and changed along the journey is good. The problem is, who all has been growing and changing, exactly? Charlotte and Alister aren’t more caring and compassionate people than when they started, they’ve just warmed up to one another, specifically, through constant exposure.

On the other hand, we’re only 60% of the way through the book, and you’d expect the moment when the hero’s growth over the course of the journey gives them the strength to complete it to come more like 80% of the way through. So it’d hardly be unusual for this bit here to not actually be emblematic of any particular growth.

In the secret lab, Charlotte finds the lost diary of Annie’s father, who helped create the machines that annihilated all life in Labati. Turns out he helped Harthum and the one other immortal in the world to suck the life out of a nation in order to become gods.

Father

The journal refers to the two siblings immortaled by the process as “Hassams,” so presumably Harthum is a corruption of that.

Also, the secret to getting a philosopher’s stone (an alchemic power source created by siphoning the soul out of someone) that can leave its container without crumbling to dust is extracting a complete soul all at once. The book had a potential explanation why no one had ever tried this, but then ignores it completely to instead…mock itself for having a dumb reveal?

Up until now, Alchemists could store within a stone a set amount of energy drained from human and animals alike. Through this processs, that stone would become what we lovingly refer to as a philosophers stone. But no one had been able to produce a philosophers stone capable of powering indefinitely. That is, not until Dr. Hassam. I still remember the day he revealed his secret. I remember feeling underwhelmed at the revelation. Looking back on it, my insides twist at my apathetic manner.

The secret was surprisingly simple. Dr. Hassam had built a potent Ens Primum Machina powerful enough to sift an entire human soul into a stone, killing the person. He assured us that the ones used to make the stones were highly dangerous criminals, but that hardly concerned me. I marveled more over the simplicity of the method. If a fraction of a soul could power machines for a time, then what could the entirety of a soul do? How had none till now discovered this simple truth?

The obvious limiter here seems to be that an ens primum machina isn’t usually powerful enough to suck an entire soul out at once. Making a sufficiently powerful people juicer was the breakthrough necessary to get this working. But apparently that’s not the limitation, and instead people just hadn’t bothered to make a sufficiently powerful people juicer to check what happens when you juice all of someone at once? ‘Cause Dr. Flamel here thinks it’s weird that no one’s ever figured this out before. And it is indeed weird. Almost every society has people it’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of power, and fairly often has people it’s willing to sacrifice just for the Hell of it.

Continue reading “The Immortal Cure: History Lesson”

The Immortal Cure: Desert Snakes

Chapter 12

This chapter opens up with the protagonists getting over all that petty bickering they were engaged in last chapter. They apologize and then Alister launches into more of his backstory. Characters are still sleepwalking through the beats of a tired old arc, but on the bright side at least this came in chapter 12 and not in, like, chapter 23 or whatever the chapter right before last is. In fact, since this is book one of a duology, this petty bickering could’ve dragged itself out past the end of the book. Turns out Alister’s father designed his ship, and the Abaric pirate king stole it and some others and killed his father and then pressganged him into the crew. Alister was way more interesting when his background was just having the personal enmity of a single ship full of pirates, rather than having been personally wronged by the leader of some globe-spanning pirate confederation.

Also, Alister’s fault in all this is supposed to be that he’s more interested in getting his bounty cleared than in Charlotte as a person, but Charlotte still has no right to Alister’s affection, so what the Hell? The book phrases it as Alister “treating [Charlotte] like a piece of cargo,” but it’s not like he shoved her in the hold and told her to stay there and keep quiet until they arrived at their destination. The actual “fault” here is apparently keeping a professional relationship instead of obeying the plot and falling in love with the female lead.

Also, they visit some sandy ruined village and get attacked by a giant monster.

Chapter 13

In which the giant monster attack continues. Our monster here is a giant serpentine monster with no eyes or nose, just a giant maw and a bunch of human arms out front that feel around. It’s basically a dune worm that hunts by feeling vibrations on the sand, but unfortunately it doesn’t care how rhythmic your vibrations are so you can’t escape it by grooving to the colors. You can escape it by standing on a rock, though, because it can’t swim through solid stone and dislikes emerging from the sand intensely enough that it won’t pop out and eat something sitting on top of it, plus I don’t know if it can feel vibrations through rock the way it can through sand. Charlotte ends up separated from the group and attacked by a slightly different snake-y worm-y sort of golem, before being saved by some doll golem that can talk. It’s all…okay? There’s nothing wrong with the chapter itself, it’s just suffering from how much I don’t care about these characters or their journey.

Chapter 14

The chapters aren’t getting shorter. I just have less and less to say about them. Quality is actually climbing a bit overall, as we get more weird and interesting ideas and fewer references to Charlotte’s tits, but we’re 55% of the way in. It’s pretty late in the game to try and win my attention just by mostly shedding some early flaws.

The doll golem is named Annie and leads Charlotte to her home in a ruined city. Annie used to be a human but then got golem’d. Also, Alister and Giovanni are stuck on a rock because the one snake chimera is constantly circling it waiting for them to step off so it can murder them. And that’s basically it.

Continue reading “The Immortal Cure: Desert Snakes”